Why belly fat is even more harmful for the heart than overall obesity
A study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology on 20 January has linked belly fat to a higher likelihood of repeat heart attacks.
Losing weight doesn't just help you look good and feel good if you're overweight, it also reduces your risk of lifestyle diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. Now, there's research to show that shedding the extra kilos even reduces the risk of heart disease in people who have already had a cardiac event.
A study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology on 20 January has linked belly fat to a higher likelihood of repeat heart attacks. While doctors have known for some time that belly fat is linked to the first instance of heart attack, this is the first study to look at belly fat in patients who have already suffered significant heart events.
The study followed more than 22,000 patients for about 3.8 years after their first heart attack and monitored their waist to investigate any correlation between a big belly and further cardiovascular issues. Incidents caused by blocked arteries, such as heart attacks and strokes, were recorded in the study. The study found that belly fat specifically is a stronger indicator of heart events than overall obesity, even when controlled for risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, hypertension, blood pressure, blood lipids and body mass index (BMI).
What does this mean for heart patients?
Currently, doctors recommend that people with heart disease should focus on maintaining their blood sugar, lipid levels and blood pressure after a heart event. While these are crucial steps for preventing recurring episodes, the study suggests that those with excess abdominal fat respond less to these interventions. The researchers recommend keeping a tab on the patient’s waist size and to offer supplementary therapies that target belly fat as a part of post-heart event intervention.
Obesity is strongly linked with heart conditions because it increases the likelihood of atherosclerosis: the narrowing of artery walls because of fatty and cholesterol deposits. This leads to increased blood pressure and blood sugar, a higher amount of lipids in the blood and increases the likelihood of diabetes as well. The increased strain on the cardiovascular system can lead to adverse heart events.
Interestingly, the study suggested that the correlation is stronger for men: as belly fat increased, so did the likelihood of recurrence. In women, however, the relationship was U-shaped in that those that fell in the middle of waist-size were at the lowest risk. The researchers said that this might be explained by the fact that fewer women were a part of the study so the sample size was not sufficient. Some other studies suggest though that abdominal fat is more closely associated with visceral fat (the fat that accumulates around vital organs) in men than women. In women, abdominal fat is perhaps more likely to be subcutaneous (under the skin) and not as harmful as fat that accumulates around the organs.
More research needs to be done on this, but the study is valuable in that it specifies that belly fat is particularly harmful and offers practical recommendations for those who have already suffered a heart event.
For more information, read our article on How to Reduce Belly Fat and Get a Flat Stomach.
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